The Arena Amazonia pitch may not be ready for the start of the World Cup, but both England and Italy will have to be as they begin their campaigns with a heavyweight and pivotal clash. The playing surface in Manaus has been the source of much attention in the days leading up to the first match of the tournament to be hosted at the new stadium, with it looking threadbare and still being treated with chemicals to help provide it a better appearance.
England coach Roy Hodgson and Italian counterpart Cesare Prandell have downplayed any potential problems with the pitch, with both likely more concerned with the stifling conditions in Manaus. A temperature of 83 degrees Fahrenheit is expected for kickoff at 7 p.m. local time on Saturday, with humidity slated to be up around 70 percent.
The conditions only add to the scale of the task at hand for both teams. With 2010 World Cup semifinalists and current South American champions Uruguay also in Group D, along with Costa Rica, England and Italy will know that there is little room for error. A slow start and an opening defeat would leave either team with a massive mountain to climb.
Italy’s preparation for the match has been given a major jolt by an ankle injury suffered to captain Gianluigi Buffon. The veteran goalkeeper suffered the problem in training on Friday, and, while Prandelli was initially positive about his chances of recovery, he was later ruled out of contention early on Saturday.
Buffon’s failure to recover in time means that Paris Saint-Germain’s Salvatore Sirigu will take over between the posts. Another player definitely out for Italy is full-back Mattia de Sciglio.
Despite coming into the game without the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, England have received a late fitness boost. Danny Welbeck has shrugged off a hamstring problem that sparked concerns earlier in the week and could be handed a starting role in Manaus. The Manchester United forward may be detailed to try and limit the influence of Italy playmaker Andrea Pirlo. Much attention, in the English media at least, has focused on the talents of Pirlo, particularly after the Juventus veteran controlled the last competitive match between the teams -- a quarterfinal of Euro 2012 that Italy won on penalties.
It remains to be seen whether Pirlo will occupy his usual deep playmaking role, though, with reports stating that Italy have lined up in training with Daniele de Rossi as the deepest midfielder. Marco Verratti, who has recovered from illness, could be handed a start in a more advanced position to provide another playmaker alongside Pirlo. Prandelli has deliberately left all options on the table, including whether to play with three center-backs or a back four.
“As regards to the system of play I am going to use, it is always good to have a few lingering doubts on the night before because up until they very last minute the players must feel that they are still competing for a place on the squad,” he explained. “We don’t want to give any competitive advantage to anybody.”
The selection dilemmas for Hodgson surround just how positive he will be in a match with such huge consequences. His mentality may well be seen by just how many of the young players who have added vitality to the squad of late will be entrusted from the start. Liverpool teenager Raheem Sterling, in particular, is pushing hard for a starting berth.
“I feel very confident that the players are prepared for this game and that they will go out and do a good job and play well,” Hodgson said, according to the English Football Association’s website.
“We have had a real upsurge of young players who have had fantastic ends of seasons and forced their way into the squad. So that makes it quite an exciting balance between the experienced and the youth because as the team go into the first game of the World Cup we have energy, pace and mobility.”